The Kia Picanto GT is a hard car to truly understand. On one side of the argument, we – as in car lovers – always badger car companies to bring in more performance-oriented models and come up with all these facts and figures about how well performance cars generally do in Australia.
On the other side, you drive a car like the Picanto GT and really start to scratch your head and wonder, ‘what is the point of this thing, exactly?’
The Picanto GT is a very affordable ‘sporty’ car, except that it’s really not that sporty.
It’s slow, the gearshift isn’t amazing and the ride can be very firm for what is – let's be real – a city car the majority of the time. But at about $18,000, you really have to put it into perspective because there is nothing out there that offers this level of ‘fun’ for the money.
You may be tempted to compare the Picanto GT to a used car, to get an idea of what you can get for your money, but that’s always a bad idea because here you have a brand new vehicle with a seven-year warranty and the latest safety features such as autonomous emergency braking.
It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison.
So, what is the Picanto GT anyway? It’s the top-spec sporty model of the Picanto city or light car that has been doing amazingly well for the South Korean brand. So much so that Picanto accounts for nearly 70 per cent of all sales in the micro segment Australia wide.
Kia has brought in this GT variant as part of its promise to have a higher sporty grade in each one of its models.
Kia has replaced the regular 1.25-litre four-cylinder naturally aspirated engine with a 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder unit that makes 74kW of power and 172Nm of torque. That’s up from 62kW and 122Nm.
Thirty per cent more torque in a car that weighs just over a tonne is nothing to sneeze at.
It’s a five-speed manual only, which we suspect is going to limit its sales, and the power and torque is driven to the front wheels as per the other models.
In terms of spec, its identical to the Picanto GT-line, bar the updated suspension, engine and power steering system. Oh, and the GT badge on the boot, of course.
From the outside there is the same hot red accents around the exterior, twin exhaust pipes, 16-inch alloy wheels with 195/45 tyres, and chrome highlights on the door handles.
Inside, you get the same 'premium' leather-look seats with red highlights, leather-look steering wheel, alloy sports pedals, and a six-speaker audio system.
From a features perspective, it gets AEB standard, as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, rear-view camera with parking sensors, heated power exterior mirrors, manual air-conditioning, cruise control, and dusk-sensing headlights.
So while it has AEB, it carries a four-star safety rating (2017 rated, when the original non-GT picanto was tested), with ANCAP stating that it didn’t offer the best possible scores on child occupant protection and pedestrian protection.
Jump inside and the price tag quickly starts to make sense. This isn’t a luxurious car and the difference between this and say, a new Kia Cerato, is night and day in terms of interior fit and finish.
Where the Picanto is almost exclusively made from hard plastics, the Cerato offer a far more modern and plush interior.
Start up the little Picanto GT and you’ll immediately realise there is something a little unique under that tiny bonnet. Historically, three-cylinder engines have always been full of character and uniqueness and this Korean unit is no different.
Build up the revs and you can really feel the torque pulling you along – but don’t be fooled, this is not a fast car. In fact, it would likely slower to 100km/h than a base model Volkswagen Polo.
Which means that the GT badge doesn’t necessarily mean high-performance, it just means fun. And this was a fair bit of fun through the twisty roads of country Victoria we found ourselves testing it in.
It’s the sort of car that has limits far lower than a normal car, which means you can stay on the edge of the car’s ability for prolonged periods of time and, given what little power it has, you have plenty of time to build up the speed and set yourself up for the next corner.
It does tend to understeer a bit if you push, not helped by its Nexen tyres, but it’s the gearbox that really spoils the otherwise mostly pleasurable experience for us.
Not only is there such a large gap between first and second in terms of performance delivery, but the actual throw of the gear shift itself is enormous. It can definitely do with a shorter shift.
There is also zero feel in the gearshift itself, it has to be one of the loosest and lightest gearshift units I've yet come across.
Kia happily admits its Australian tune for the Picanto GT is far more biased towards handling than comfort, and you can certainly feel that behind the wheel, for it provides a rather stiff ride on regular roads but doesn’t seem to have all that much body roll when push comes to shove.
Kia Australia used the firmest springs allowed with a very aggressive shock absorber tune to bring out the best possible sporty character of the car. Point being, if you’re going to buy one of these, be aware that it won’t be the most comfortable thing to be in as a daily.
The other major change for the GT is the power steering system, which although uses the same setup as the GT-line, has been tuned very differently for the GT.
After a solid drive through the Victorian countryside, it’s hard to really judge the Picanto GT. For us, it seems like a slightly confused offering. Yes, it’s fun, but only in the right environment.
How often are you going to take your Picanto city car for a mountainous drive? How often are you going to find yourself in traffic begging for softer suspension? That pretty much sums this car up.
Here at CarAdvice we own an Abarth 595, basically the Ferrari-equivalent of the micro-car segment.
In some ways, this is a competitor to that car – despite a solid 10k price difference – but where the Abarth is properly fast and sporty, the Picanto is nothing of the sort.
Yes, it’s fun, but that comes at too high a cost to comfort for the sort of car that it is. If you're in the market for a Picanto, the sporty-looking and still fun Picanto GT-Line would be the better pick for most. Or, if you can find the extra cash (though it's not a small difference), the Abarth 595 is exceptional buying.